Monday, 30 July 2012
For many years, the cliff-top road to El Bulli was uneven, unpaved and, frankly, terrifying. Difficult enough even today despite clear road markings and that thick black tarmac the Europeans seem to do so well, for all the time Ferran Adria was collecting his stars his guests (not to mention countless Michelin inspectors) were required to pass this rally trial of a journey before they were allowed to sit down to dinner.
Of course, it was entirely deliberate. The bumpy journey around the coast, that half-hour spent bracing for every pothole, hoping to God you weren't about to hit a stray rock and career off into the Bay of Rosas, was all part of the adventure, the idea presumably being that the harder you had to try to get to a restaurant, the more likely you were to make the most of it once you got there. Whatever you thought of his food (and I didn't think much), Adria is nothing if not a showman, and understands that anticipation and the sense of achievement of having "arrived" (all coupled with the desperate unlikelihood of securing a reservation in the first place of course) is absolutely the best way of ensuring your guests are in the best possible frame of mind to be entertained.
On a smaller scale, building any mini break or long journey around a single meal goes some way to generating that sense of anticipation. Admittedly, Cartmel isn't quite as far-flung as Cala Montjoi, and turning left off the A590 isn't as spectacular as navigating a precipitous coastal road 200 metres above the Mediterranean sea, but the idea is the same - you're making a journey for your dinner, you are removing yourself from your daily patterns and routines and embarking on an adventure. We essentially weren't travelling up to the Lake District for any other reason than to eat at l'Enclume, and so the journey, indeed the whole trip, became part of the meal. And it follows, of course, that had the meal been disappointing, so would the trip.
Fortunately, Saturday evening in l'Enclume turned out to be one of the greatest meals I've ever had in my life. I have been thinking hard (usually a mistake) about whether if I'd just got the tube to Mayfair and had the same food and service would I still be in such raptures; on the one hand it doesn't matter I suppose as it's just pointless speculation, but are all truly great meals just as much a product of build-up and state-of-mind and surroundings as they are of skill in the kitchen? Is l'Enclume really serving the best food in Britain or was it simply a result of a "holiday mode" mental state and a pretty sunlit garden next to a babbling brook? See if you can help me decide.
From an array of amuses that arrived more or less together, the least impressive was actually the only thing in the whole evening I recognised from the l'Enclume sister restaurant in London, Roganic. "Cream cheese wafers" were as pretty as an entry in the Chelsea Flower Show but tasted only "very good". Smoked eel cooked in ham fat tasted every bit as good as that combination sounds, "Celery and apple and pickled beetroot", a substitution for my red-meat-avoiding father was a little explosion of fresh summer produce, and "peas and beef tongue" suffered only slightly from underseasoning but nevertheless was great fun to eat thanks to a range of interesting textures.
Out in front, though, was something called "Oyster pebbles"; supremely delicate apple meringue filled with oyster cream which dissolved into heavenly fresh seafood in the mouth, accompanied by extraordinary things called "oyster leaves" - look like weeds, taste like oyster. Really.
First proper course was an achingly pretty arrangement of sliced kohlrabi, puffed wild rice and what looked like a bright yellow quails egg but what was actually cod & sage cream set inside a gel of some kind. L'Enclume is not averse to using the odd bit of scientific trickery, it seems, but only sparingly, and always to great effect. Some powerfully-flavoured pieces of tomato added extra umami, although if you are (understandably) wincing at the unironic use of the word "umami" in a restaurant review, feel free to substitute it for "tomatoey flavour".
I should probably pause to make a special mention of the house bread. There were three kinds - a pumpernickel, an onion whole-wheat of some kind and a white flavoured with summer herbs, and were so good with the bright-white salted house butter it was a constant struggle to stop working your way through them. They were fresh out of the oven, with perfect crusts and soft moist inside, and I have not had better house bread anywhere apart from sister restaurant Roganic. Alaine Ducasse once said, when confronted with a criticism that his house bread was cold, that he didn't want people to "fill up" before the proper food started arriving. Well, Ducasse is a fool and l'Enclume is proof that a tray of the greatest bread in Britain only adds to the enjoyment of a meal. We do have some self-control, you know.
Westcombe [Cheddar] dumplings in onion broth, marjoram and broad beans was nothing short of sensational. The flavour from the dumplings was as good as you might expect from this magisterial unpasteurised product, but the syrupy onion broth paired with tiny leaves of intense marjoram turned the whole thing into a sort of God's Own French Onion soup.
I have long suspected that venison makes a better tartare than beef, and nothing on this plate was about to change my mind. Studded with delicate tiny cubes of capers and dressed with fennel shoots, the venison still managed to be the star of the show despite jewelled pockets of sugared fennel bursting on the tongue and providing wildly inventive seasoning and texture.
Scallops (usefully described as "sea scallops" on the menu, marking them apart from the tasteless land-dwelling variety you see so many of these days, as someone sarkily pointed out on Twitter) came dressed with a sharp strawberry sauce, crunchy grilled cauliflower and a selection of foraged coastal herbs that seasoned with intense sea-salt flavours. There was also a little dollop of what I think was some kind of hazelnut purée, and a scattering of puffed oats.
We were fortunate enough to eat at l'Enclume on the same day as their restaurant farm had pulled up its first harvest potatoes. These innocent looking tubers managed to punch through as a main ingredient despite being served with citrusy Nasturtium leaves and delicate slivers of chicken skin, and were as rich - and enjoyable - as any protein.
Next, a disc of charred cucumber and some kind of crispy shoot of broccoli was scattered with local shrimp and a blackberry oil dressing. The shrimp, as you might hope, were the talking point - sweet and juicy and almost unnaturally powerful in flavour, but the same attention to detail and artistic sensibility had been applied to everything else on the plate.
I'm going to just take a moment here and say that those previous five courses, from the onion broth to the local bay shrimps, constitutes the most consistently brilliant run of dishes I've ever had the pleasure of eating. Inevitably any meal has highlights, but it's very rare indeed to see so many side-by-side that are as good as can possibly be, that each impress in every way just as much as the one before, and that maintain such a stunning level of precision and skill. These dishes are side one of Van Morrison's Moondance, the first ten minutes of Disney/Pixar's Up - crafted, expertly judged, perfect.
That the next course didn't quite live up to the previous giddying highs is not that much of a criticism. Local bass was full of fresh flavour and cooked to just translucent, but the topping of shockingly fishy cockles on top dominated far too much, and rather threw the whole thing out of kilter. We also had to Google what a "chenopodium" was (looks like mint, tastes of salad).
We were, though, right back on top of the mountain with this suckling pig. Dressed with yellow beans and wood sorrel, the crackling took the form of piggy popcorn, presumably dried and deep-fried pieces of pig skin. The pork itself was unbelievably tender and moist, and I'm afraid I rather embarrassed myself by sweeping up every last remnant of the sauce with my fingers, it was that addictive.
Cheeses were all British Isles and largely very good although in all honesty I was a bit underwhelmed by a couple of the soft goat's. In principle I applaud the idea of extending the fiercly localist principles of l'Enclume to the cheeseboard, I just think - and believe me it pains me to say this - that sometimes the French do certain types of cheese better. At least, for now.
Iced chamomile, spruce, celery and black pepper was a palate-cleanser but memorable enough in its own right. Chamomile is an interesting flavour and, in common with pretty much everything else we at at l'Enclume, the combination of these ingredients wasn't something I'd ever had before.
"Cumbrian slate" was in fact two portions of summer berry jelly dusted and shaped to look like lumps of rock. Lemon verbena were placed like shoots of ferns growing in between the rocks, and the apple and gooseberries were freeze-dried and aerated somehow into little moss-like sponges. Clever stuff, and of course, very tasty.
There's not much not to like about the combination of cherries, hazelnut and cider, and yet another supreme command of texture and technique made this something special. I particularly liked the hazelnut, which was whipped into a kind of light mousse.
Finally, journey's end. Oatmeal stout, blackberry, malt and plum was a sandwich of light malty mousse topped with blackberries and served alongside a little cup of plum sauce. We'd had fully fifteen courses before it, and yet it still disappeared with relish and enthusiasm.
So what do you think? To return to an earlier point, running back through the l'Enclume menu now I can't imagine the setting and state of mind had much to do with the fact we enjoyed ourselves so much; it was simply that presentation, ingredients, attention to detail and monumental effort had produced a dinner that stood apart from pretty much anything else we'd ever eaten.
No element of any dish was superfluous, no fancy cheffy technique was either overused or there simply to hollowly impress at the expense of culinary sense. The food was never obscure or superior; where it was challenging it only ever delighted and surprised, never confused; where it used foraged or unusual ingredients they always worked better than any conceivable alternative, and were not just present to prove a point on sustainability. The service was professional and knowledgeable but never aloof, the timing between courses always just right - the first few dishes appearing swiftly in sympathy with our empty stomachs, then slowing down as the meal wore on. Yes, there were a couple of things we enjoyed less but these weren't jarring errors, just differences of opinion perhaps, and I suppose £89 a head isn't an everyday spend but is still perfectly within the bounds of acceptability for this level of cooking.
I'm not the first person to rave about l'Enclume and I certainly won't be the last. And I won't insult their kitchen by labelling anyone a "genius"; that word has lost all meaning after being thrown at anyone who's ever lifted a knife and who very rarely deserves it - certainly not Ferran Adria who I've always considered to be more PT Barnum than Pablo Picasso. So the greatest compliment I can give Simon Rogan and Mark Birchall and the phalanx of talent behind the stoves in the old Smithy in Cartmel is that I don't think there is any more exciting, innovative, joyful and miraculous restaurant in Britain. L'Enclume is an open-hearted and masterful celebration of everything that's great about modern British food, and you should go as soon as you possibly can.